2014 Colorado legislation: Busy year for water issues #COleg #COflood

Colorado Capitol building
Colorado Capitol building

From the Sterling Journal Advoacate (Marianne Goodland):

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) was the prime sponsor of three committee bills, on relocating headgates, a study of water-absorbing pheratophytes, and the civil liability bill for volunteers. All three went to the governor for signing. He has until June 6 to sign or veto the bills.

Several bills that would designate funding for cleanup and repairs also went to the governor in the last days of the session. House Bill 14-1002 would provide $11.8 million in grants to local governments for cleanup and repairs to water infrastructure, primarily wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities. The grants, which can be matched with federal funds, would be available for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years.

Up to $40 million from revenue derived from the excise taxes on marijuana sales would go to schools damaged in the floods under HB 1287. The bill directs the Colorado Department of Education to contact all schools in the counties that were designated as disaster areas by the governor last year to assess damages and determine funding. In northeastern Colorado, Logan, Sedgwick, Washington and Morgan counties were declared disaster areas.

The first bill to reach the governor related to the floods was Senate Bill 14-007, which allowed county commissioners to transfer money from their general fund accounts, which come from property taxes, to road and bridge funds following a disaster declaration. The governor signed the bill on Feb. 9.

Volunteers and relief workers who assisted during the disaster also got some help from lawmakers. Sonnenberg was a prime co-sponsor on SB 1438, to grant flood volunteers the same immunity from civil liability as is granted to volunteer firefighters. He also was a sponsor of HB 1003, which gave nonresident disaster relief workers an exemption from state income tax for income earned in Colorado during the disaster. The state estimated the lost tax revenue at about $30,000 in 2014-15.

There were several controversial water bills in the 2014 session. One that made it to the governor is SB 23, which would allow for the voluntary transfer of water savings to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for in-stream flow purposes west of the Continental Divide. The bill would create a new water right: “water efficiency savings,” defined as a portion of water rights used for agricultural irrigation or stock water purposes in water divisions 4, 5, 6 and 7, all west of the Continental Divide. Those “savings” would then be loaned to the CWCB for in-stream purposes, such as improving river habitat or recreational uses. The bill faced strong opposition from House Republicans in the waning days of the session, but May 5 it passed on a 35-30 vote and went on to the governor.

The governor signed SB 17 into law on April 11. As introduced, it would have limited the size of lawns in new residential developments that buy up agricultural water for irrigation purposes. However, the bill got furious opposition from housing developers, and it was instead turned into a study that would identify best practices to limit municipal outdoor water consumption.

A bill that would prohibit the sale of low-efficiency toilets, shower heads and faucets also awaits the governor’s signature. As of Jan. 1, 2016, new or renovated homes must use “Watersense”-designated plumbing fixtures, and the sale of traditional plumbing fixtures would be prohibited. The bill drew opposition from rural lawmakers, who argued that that Watersense fixtures wouldn’t work as well in rural communities due to low water pressure, and fears that sewage systems could be damaged. SB 103 passed along generally party-line votes in the House and Senate…

SB 25 was signed into law by Hickenlooper on Feb. 27. The bill allows more small communities, defined as less than 5,000 residents, to apply for grants for developing water and wastewater treatment facilities. Funds come from severance taxes that go into an existing Drinking Water Grant Program; however, the bill does not increase the amount of funding available. The grants have not been made for several years, due to lack of funding, but the state estimates dollars will be available beginning with the 2014-15 fiscal year. With the addition of more communities, however, there may be more competition for those dollars, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

On Feb. 19, Hickenlooper signed SB 26, which ended the requirements for certain annual reports from the state engineer. Those reports include the tabulation of water rights; however, the state engineer is required to maintain a database of those water rights, available on the Internet and upon request.

The other water committee bill that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk was HB 1026, which would allow for the creation of flexible water markets. But its sponsor, Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village) asked the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee to send it back to the interim committee for further discussion. Under the bill, an agricultural water rights holder who reduces consumptive water use can apply for a change in use for the unused water; that water can then be transferred to another party without designating its beneficial use. While HB 1026 was introduced on the first day of the session, the bill didn’t make it to a Senate committee hearing until April 30, due to ongoing opposition and discussions with various groups. Opponents, including Brophy, claimed the bill would violate the state’s prohibition against water speculation.

Two others bills made their way to the governor that dealt with water issues. HB 1052 increases the authority of groundwater management districts to levy fines and enforce well permits. The bill passed largely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, and was signed by the governor on March 21.

Finally, in the last days of the 2014 session, lawmakers approved the annual Colorado Water Conservation Board grant projects list for 2014-15. HB 1333 appropriates $3.3 million from the CWCB for 12 projects. The projects include:

• $750,000 to develop a statewide competitive grant program to promote alternatives to “buy and dry” of agricultural water;

• $100,000 for drought mitigation strategies;

• $500,000 to continue collecting groundwater data along the South Platte River.

More 2014 Colorado Legislation coverage here.

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